Dongjiang visit a sign that Beijing and pan-democrats can talk

Discussions on water supply between mainland officials and Hong Kong lawmakers – including radical ‘Long Hair’ – a step in the right direction

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 1:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 1:34am

Radical lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung’s one-off permit for his first entry to the mainland in a decade may have grabbed the headlines from the weekend visit to the Dongjiang, or East River, basin, source of most of Hong Kong’s water, by a delegation of 18 lawmakers. That immigration officials finally allowed a vocal Beijing critic to cross the border wearing a yellow ribbon in his lapel as a reminder of the 2014 Occupy Central protests is symbolic of the extension of an olive branch to the pan-democrats.

But the significance of the lawmakers’ visit goes far beyond symbolism.

It was a small but vital first step towards establishing a more constructive atmosphere between Beijing and the pan-democrats in the wake of their rejection of proposed political reforms.

In that respect Leung, nicknamed “Long Hair”, better known for banner-waving and slogan-shouting, played his part by doing nothing to distract attention from the principal objective. This was to help both sides understand each other better. It was important not to let politics get in the way. An inspection of the Dongjiang, ahead of the renegotiation of the current three-year water supply agreement, was therefore a constructive opportunity for lawmakers to contribute to the foundations of better understanding.

Is Hong Kong’s HK$13.4 billion water deal with mainland China unfair?

That said, mainland officials opposed changes to the present supply arrangement, under which the price over three years has climbed from HK$11.2 billion to HK$13.4 billion in total, for the guaranteed supply of 820 million cubic metres a year. According to the Democratic Party’s Helena Wong Pik-wan, they said prices would go up if the city did not buy a guaranteed amount. Hong Kong used only about 75 per cent of the supply last year, according to Wong, who queried the need to pay for so much water. Dr Lo Wai-kwok, an engineering sector lawmaker, suggested the mainland consider accepting less for a smaller guaranteed supply, with extra usage charged separately.

Lawmakers are right to seek the best possible deal, consistent with the reliability of availability of safe drinking water expected in an advanced economy. Stability of supply is therefore paramount, which tends to underline the virtue of the guarantee. Hopefully, Hong Kong and mainland officials can sit down and work out long-term arrangements, given the rigorous treatment and quality control needed on both sides of the border to maintain confidence in clean water. Thankfully, according to Hong Kong development secretary Eric Ma Siu-cheung, who accompanied the lawmakers, they found the Dongjiang water quality to be generally satisfactory. He said the government would relay lawmakers’ views on the pricing model to Guangdong authorities “to get the best deal”.